Cutting Heroes Down to Size [SMALL SOLDIERS & SAVING PRIVATE RYAN]

One of my best known reviews, from the July 24, 1998 Chicago Reader. For those who’d prefer to read a shorter version of the same argument, I’ll start with my capsule reviews of the two films. – J.R.

Small Soldiers

Director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace, Explorers, Matinee) is a national treasure, and his lack of recognition by the general public may actually make it easier for him to function subversively. His unpretentious fantasy romps have more to say about the American psyche, pop culture, and the ideology of violence than anything dreamed up by Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. This delightful adventure about war toys running amok in suburban middle America is a synthesis and extension of most of his previous movies, with echoes of Gulliver’s Travels (including some of the satire). The toys in question are the villainous Commando Elite, fashioned using a microchip from the U.S. Defense Department to mercilessly slaughter the noble if freakish Gorgonites, a set of toys programmed (like other minorities one can mention) to hide and to lose; the Ohio citizens who wind up in the cross fire are strictly generic sitcom types, but we wind up caring about them almost as much as we care about the toys.Read more »

Silents Are Golden (Silent Ozu)

From the Chicago Reader (January 14, 2005). — J.R.

Yasujiro Ozu Retrospective

at the Gene Siskel Film Center

It’s no longer controversial to assert that Yasujiro Ozu (1903-’63) is one of the greatest filmmakers ever — certainly one of the top dozen and possibly the greatest of those who’ve focused on family life. But getting a fix on his work remains far from easy. Only 34 of his 50-odd films appear to have survived, and two features exist only in fragments. The Gene Siskel Film Center’s retrospective, which started last week and runs through March 3, includes 25 features, and some of his other works, including a seldom-shown documentary short, might be screened later if the features draw big enough crowds.

One of the films showing this week, Tokyo Story (1953) — the first Ozu film to have been seen widely in the West, and still the best known and most highly regarded — is a good starting point for viewers unfamiliar with his work. (So are Equinox Flower and Good Morning, two gorgeous color films from the late 50s, showing later this month.) But it has led many critics to make unfair broad generalizations about Ozu’s style and content, to claim that his films are slow and conservative, his technique minimalist.… Read more »

Out 1 Solitaire

mubi.com/notebook/posts/out-1-solitaire

The following “messages” were sent to Kevin B. Lee as part of the preparatory work for our video Out 1 Solitaire: Part of the impact of Out 1 derives from the way
mubi.com|By Jonathan Rosenbaum and Kevin B. Lee
[09/30/14]

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André Delvaux’s Buried Treasures

This was written in late 2012 and early 2013 for Film Comment, but this magazine’s editor loves to improvise the contents of every issue at the last moment, and this article had already been edited, scheduled, and then pulled from two separate issues. For me, it had currency and some immediacy because of the release of a Delvaux box set in Belgium; from the editor’s more land-locked Manhattan perspective, it could be published any time without making much difference. Rather than run the risk of this delay happening a third or even fourth time over the remainder of that year, and because I believed that jonathanrosenbaum.com may have had a larger readership than Film Comment anyway, I decided to make a last-minute editorial decision of my own and posted it there, originally in April 2013. (Like all my other texts, it subsequently got transferred here half a year later, at jonathanrosenbaum.net.)   — J.R.

Part of the strength of André Delvaux (1926-2002) as a filmmaker is that, like the otherwise very different Samuel Fuller and Jacques Tati, he was already pushing 40 when he directed his first feature — having by then studied music, German philology, and the law, and also taught Germanic languages and literature before he became a pioneer in teaching film at Belgian state schools, where Chantal Akerman and Hitler in Hollywoods Frédéric Sojcher (who has written a short book on Delvaux) were among his pupils, meanwhile playing piano to accompany silent films at the Brussels Cinémathèque.… Read more »

Reading: Pynchon’s Prayer

From the Chicago Reader (March 9, 1990). — J.R.

The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. . . . The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. –Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845-46)

A good many newspapers and magazines have accompanied their reviews of Vineland, Thomas Pynchon’s fourth novel, with the same 37-year-old photograph of the author grinning goofily from his high school yearbook. Given Pynchon’s refusal to be photographed or interviewed, there are touches of both desperation and petty vindictiveness in this compulsion to objectify and visualize, however inadequately, a novelist who chooses to be identified only through his writing.… Read more »

Lines and Circles [PLAYTIME and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY]

Originally posted online in Moving Image Source,  December 3, 2010. — J.R.

Jacques Tati’s Playtime, a contemporary comedy chronicling a day spent by American tourists and various locals in a studio-built Paris, premiered in 70 mm (or, more precisely, according to Criterion, 65 mm) in Paris on December 16, 1967; at the time it was 152 minutes long, and over the next two months — under pressure from exhibitors, and to avoid an intermission — Tati reduced the length by 15 minutes.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a science fiction adventure that stretches roughly from East Africa in the year 4 billion B.C. to the outskirts of Jupiter around 2002, first opened in Cinerama in Washington, D.C., on April 2, 1968, and then, in the same format, in New York the following day and in Los Angeles on April 4, during which time it was 158 minutes long; over the following week, based on his own responses to audience reactions, Kubrick in New York reduced its length by 19 minutes, making it only two minutes longer than the shortened Playtime.

Large-format restorations of both these films, along with David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia, are coming this month to the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto for extended runs.… Read more »

One man’s meat is another man’s Poisson (GRAVITY’S RAINBOW)

This is by far the most challenging book review I’ve ever had to write. I wrote it during my extended stint in Paris (1969-74), after requesting the assignment from an editor at The Village Voice. I was already a big Pynchon fan by then, having already reviewed The Crying of Lot 49 for my college newspaper, The Bard Observer. Years later, I would review both Vineland and Against the Day for the Chicago Reader, and Mason & Dixon for In These Times. I’ve recently been assigned to review Pynchon’s next novel – Inherent Vice, due out in early August — for Slate.

 

 

Eventually, after getting assigned to review Gravity’s Rainhow for the Voice in  1973, I received a copy of the bound, uncorrected galleys resembling the one seen below on the right, the marked-up copy of which I still possess today. One significant difference between this version and the published one is the epigraph preceding the fourth and final section, “The Counterforce”. In the published version, which I received shortly before completing my review, this is, “What?” — Richard M. Nixon. In the uncorrected proofs, this is, “She has brought them to her senses, /They have laughed inside her laughter, /Now she rallies her defenses, /For she fears someone will ask her /For eternity — /And she’s so busy being free….” — Joni Mitchell.… Read more »

Real Horror Shows [EYES WITHOUT A FACE & THE KINGDOM]

From the Chicago Reader (November 24, 1995). — J.R.

Eyes Without a Face

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Georges Franju

Written by Jean Redon, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Claude Sautet, Pierre Gascar, and Franju

With Edith Scob, Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel, Béatrice Altariba, François Guerin, Alexandre Rignault, and Claude Brasseur.

The Kingdom

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Lars von Trier and Morten Arnfred

Written by von Trier, Niels Vorsel, and Tomas Gislason

With Ernst Hugo Jaregard, Kirsten Rolffes, Ghita Norby, Soren Pilmark, Holger Juul Hansen, Annevig Schelde Ebbe, Jens Okking, Otto Brandenburg, Baard Owe, and Birgitte Raabjerg.

They’re both arty European fantasy meditations on the medical profession — that’s about all that Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1959) and Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom (1993) have in common, apart from the fact that they’re both opening here the day after Thanksgiving. The differences between them are much more instructive. Franju’s Les yeux sans visage is a poetic, compact (88 minutes) black-and-white French horror picture about skin grafting that premiered inauspiciously in the United States 32 years ago in a dubbed and reportedly mangled version known as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus; happily, Facets Multimedia is showing it in its original form and subtitled.… Read more »

The Rocky Horror Picture Cult

 

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1980). -– J.R.

Now that criticism and advertising are becoming harder and harder to separate in American film culture, the notion of any genuinely spontaneous movie cult becomes automatically suspect. It implies something quite counter to the megacinema of Cimino, Coppola and Spielberg — a cinema that can confidently write its own reviews (and reviewers) if it wants to, working with the foreknowledge of a guaranteed media-saturation coverage that will automatically recruit and program most of its audience, and which dictates a central part of its meaning in advance.

For a long time in the U.S. (as elsewhere), certain specialized minority interests that get shoved off the screens by the box-office bullies have been taking refuge in midnight screenings, most of them traditionally held at weekends. But what seems truly unprecedented about the elaborate cult in the U.S. that has developed around Friday and Saturday midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, over the past three and a half years, is the degree to which a film has been appropriated by its youthful audience. Indeed, it might even be possible to argue that this audience, rather than allow itself to be used as an empty vessel to be filled with a filmmaker’s grand mythic meanings, has been learning how to use a film chiefly as a means of communicating with itself.… Read more »

Bullet Ballet [PISTOL OPERA]

This appeared in the August 22, 2003 Chicago Reader. On the afternoon of September 17, 2014, in Sarajevo at the Film.Factory, I screened this for the MA students and assigned them to make five-minute remakes. We screened most of the results nine days later at a party, and they were really dazzling — and all quite different from one another. — J.R.

Pistol Opera

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Seijun Suzuki

Written by Kazunori Ito and Takeo Kimura

With Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Masatoshi Nagase, Kan Hanae, Mikijiro Hira, Kirin Kiki, Haruko Kato, Yeong-he-Han, and Jan Woudstra.

Can I call a film a masterpiece without being sure that I understand it? I think so, since understanding is always relative and less than clear-cut. Look long enough at the apparent meaning of any conventional work — past the illusion of narrative continuity that persuades us to overlook anomalies, breaks, fissures, and other distractions we can’t process — and it usually becomes elusive. Yet it’s also true that we have different ways of comprehending meaning. I once watched some children listen to passages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, possibly the most impenetrable book in the English language, and saw them burst into giggles, plainly understanding better than the adults that this was exactly the way grown-ups talked, only funnier.… Read more »

The Mummy

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1999). — J.R.

TheMummy

The-Mummy

Not just a remake of the Boris Karloff-Karl Freund classic but an Indiana Jones spin-off with dollops of Jason and the Argonauts, George Romero’s zombie series, Land of the Pharaohs, Samson and Delilah, and even Apocalypse Now (Arnold Vosloo’s mummy bears a certain resemblance to Brando’s Kurtz). Writer-director Stephen Sommers does a pretty good job of zipping things along and occasionally scaring us, and the digital effects are fun; Brendan Fraser, John Hannah, and Jonathan Hyde do what they can with one-dimensional parts but tend to be outshone by the almost two-dimensional Rachel Weisz. Kevin J. O’Connor is mainly embarrassing as a conniving Arab, but then all the Arabs in this 1999 film, set during the 1920s, are accorded roughly the same respect, affection, and humanity as black people in The Birth of a Nation. Thanks to the example of Lucas-Spielberg, guiltless colonialism backed by endless gun power is still the name of the game. PG-13, 124 min. (JR)

The-Mummy2

the-mummy3Read more »

Albert Brooks, Woody Allen, and Money

One wouldn’t expect Albert Brooks’s first novel (Twenty Thirty: The Real Story of What Happens to America) and Woody Allen’s latest movie (Midnight in Paris) to have much in common, especially after one considers that the former is set 19 years in the future whereas the latter is set at least partially between eight and nine decades in the past. But the main thing they do have in common is in fact very contemporary — a preoccupation with money, which Brook’s novel is especially up front about. Both are also ultimately more interested in wisdom than in laughs (or, for that matter, in literature, at least for its own sake); Brooks’s own form of humor, which he seems to find impossible to suppress, is mainly a creative form of sarcasm, which he plants in many of his characters (all of them male, as it happens); more generally, much of his novel’s tone is fairly dour and cautionary. And the principal thing it’s dour and cautionary about is a very contemporary preoccupation with not having enough money.… Read more »

Crying in Their Beer (THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD)

This appeared in the May 14, 2004 issue of the Chicago Reader, and occasioned one of the few thank-you notes I’ve received from a filmmaker for a review. I hope both Guy Maddin and those reading this will forgive me for immodestly reproducing his email: “Dear Jonathan: I usually try to avoid setting precedents that violate what should be a no-fly zone between critics and filmmakers, but I must say that your review of Saddest Music left me feeling understood at last!!! What a feeling. Thank you for supplying this euphoria. You also win bonus points for the Laura Riding discovery — I always liked her characters’ names. George Toles, who is terrified of reading reviews, will be thrilled to see his unsung name given its proper due. Not only that, you disabled Anthony Lane’s stinkbombs. A million thanks, Jonathan!!  Warmest, Guy“  – J.R.

The Saddest Music in the World

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Guy Maddin

Written by George Toles, Maddin, and Kazuo Ishiguro

With Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros,

David Fox, and Ross McMillan.

To Guy Maddin, every contemporary story that feels true is at bottom an amnesia story. — screenwriter George Toles

When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity.Read more »

Cliff Notes from Mt. Olympus: review of Nabokov’s LECTURES ON LITERATURE

I should credit my editor at The Soho News, Tracy Young, for the title of this review, which ran in their November 26, 1980 issue. For my younger readers, and even for some of my older ones, it might be helpful to add that the “snake oil salesman” alluded to in my final sentence is (or, rather, was) Ronald Reagan. — J.R.

Lectures on Literature

By Vladimir Nabokov

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95

“Let us not kid ourselves,” intones the tall athletic Russian professor to his students at Cornell. “Let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever, except in the very special case of somebody’s wishing to become, of all things, a professor of literature. The girl Emma Bovary never existed; the book Madame Bovary shall exist forever and ever. A book lives longer than a girl.”

No doubt. And even at the price of four first-run movies, this long-awaited volume of aristocratic riches has got to be the publishing bargain of the year. Comfortably oversized, decked out with plentiful reproductions of the Great Man’s notes, annotated teaching copies, diagrams, and sketches, it might be the best analysis of fiction by a practitioner to have come along since The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor’s masterly study of the short story.… Read more »

Problems of Classification: A Few Traits in Four Films by Ermanno Olmi

Written for A Man Called Ermanno: Olmi’s Cinema and Works, published by Edições Il Sorpasso (in Lisbon) in May 2012. A French translation of this essay has been published in Trafic #91, automne 2014. — J.R.

CAPA-EN-OLMI-copia

For me, the cinema is a state of mind and a process of analysis from a series of detailed observations.
— Ermanno Olmi, from a 1988 interview (1)

1

Ermanno Olmi first became well known as a filmmaker during the period in the early 1960s when the Nouvelle Vague and, more specifically, François Truffaut’s formulation of la politique des auteurs, were near the height of their international influence. Yet it seems that one factor that has limited Olmi’s reputation as an auteur over the half-century that has passed since then is his apparent reluctance and/or inability to remain type-cast in either his choice of film projects or in his execution of them. Indeed, the fact that he repeatedly eludes and/or confounds whatever auteurist profile that criticism elects to construct for him in its effort to classify his artistry results in a periodic neglect of him followed by periodic “rediscoveries”. And these rediscoveries are confused in turn by the fact that each rediscovery of Olmi’s work seems to redefine his profile rather than build on the preceding one.… Read more »